As I laid beside my husband during the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing last year, my chest felt tight and my breathing intensified. He had never physically hurt me and had always respected my sexual boundaries. But despite this, with my body curled in a tight ball, my back to my best friend and lover for almost 20 years, dread settled in the pit of my stomach. Part of me knew I wasn’t actually in any danger but my heart was racing until exhaustion finally overtook me and I fell asleep. The next night, sitting on the couch endlessly scrolling while fighting to stay awake, I realized I was avoiding coming to bed. But why?
What I have learned as a registered psychotherapist supporting clients with abuse histories for over 15 years, is that the erasure of trust in others and in the world as a safe place is one of the most harmful impacts of sexual trauma, along with internalized shame. Even when there is no history of sexual abuse, insecure attachment and emotional traumas can create enduring vulnerabilities negatively impacting couple relationships. Instead of responding mindfully, people react defensively based on old trauma scripts.
Dr. Francine Shapiro, creator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Dr. Susan Johnson, creator of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) have found that until we gain conscious awareness and integrate past traumas or change the relationship “dance,” the past runs our show as old internalized beliefs drive decisions, actions and relationship patterns, leading to challenges inside and outside of the bedroom.
According to trauma expert, Dr. Bessel Vander Kolk, “Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless.” Research has found similarities in our environment or between a perpetrator and others, can cause flashbacks—a reexperiencing of the emotions and sensations associated with the original trauma as if it were happening now.
Sitting and hearing details of others’ abuse experiences and/or holding emotional and energetic space for survivors can begin to also challenge the therapist’s and other healing professional’s sense of safety in the world, which can extend to the home. Front line responders can be flooded with the horrific details they see at crime scenes, emergency departments and during investigations. Teachers can experience secondary traumatic stress from working with traumatized students. Our brains are evolutionarily wired to keep us safe. Already, operating from a negativity bias, the amygdala, which is designed to protect us by alerting us to the possibility of danger, can overgeneralize or misread neutral cues, sensing danger when none actually exists.
Thus, whether it’s our own trauma or vicarious trauma or a combination of both; those of us impacted by sexual or domestic violence are more susceptible to being on guard and experiencing “false fire alarms” which cause a series of neurochemical and bodily changes that lead to hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. This triggers people into defensive reactions of fight, flight, freeze or collapse which can interfere with daily living and our relationships. Smells, sounds, seeing or reading disturbing images or details can all trigger flashbacks. While the majority of men are good and kind, given the majority of sexual harassment and violence is committed by men, our brains and bodies can trick us into believing all men are “the enemy.”
Whether from memories we’ve tried to avoid or thought we’d worked through in talk therapy, dissociated memories and symptoms, or from vicarious trauma, unexpected defensive or fear-based reactions towards our partners can trigger criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. These are the four destructive interaction patterns that Dr. John Gottman has found in his research that lead to relationships breaking down.
So how do we explain we are not feeling safe with our partners without making things worse? Awareness is the first step towards change. Understanding not just the past but the greater cultural context that has recently triggered so many women and men’s remembering of their abuse histories is critical for all of us to navigate the minefield of sexual relationships in this #MeToo era.
On a cool morning in October 2017 I innocently opened my social media feed to find female friends, family members and strangers using the hashtag #MeToo (originally shared by social justice advocate Tarana Burke over a decade earlier) to acknowledge experiences of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. As the days and weeks went on, I saw #MeToo everywhere. I wasn’t surprised by the multitude of women I knew and loved sharing their #MeToo stories but I was unprepared for all the graphic details I was reading online and hearing from an increasing caseload of sexual abuse survivors I was being assigned.
Despite working diligently throughout my career to guard against vicarious trauma—engaging in a variety of self-care practices including not watching certain shows and movies that featured sexual violence because of my susceptibility as a highly sensitive person to details and images invading my brain and body—it was getting harder to escape daily reminders of my lack of safety and equality as a woman. Making things worse, the few conversations I had with my husband in the early days of this second wave of #MeToo seemed to center around his fear of false allegations against men. This contrasted with my own awareness of the countless number of survivors who either never pressed charges because of stigma and fear of how they would be treated, or perpetrators who were not convicted or received an incredibly light sentence.
In my mind, the system was broken. The story I was telling myself was that “good men” like my husband were not doing anything to fix it and thus I couldn’t count on him to be there for me. Sue Johnson explains that this is the central attachment need to feel secure in our relationships. I wanted desperately for him to be an ally but instead of inviting him into these crucial conversations, I found myself either getting angry or shutting down. As I was constantly reminded of the devastation sexual harm has in all areas of a person’s life and the negative ripple effect of generational trauma, I began to pull away. I didn’t even bring up my thoughts or feelings around the Kavanaugh hearing. Slowly, the disconnection and the almost daily stories in my office and in my social media feed and at committee meetings around male abuses of power and sexual violations heightened my own fear and resentment.
Fortunately, having an understanding of the neurobiology of trauma and the negativity bias, along with reflective writing practices, helped me understand why I was being triggered. Identifying what I needed helped release and transform vicarious trauma into post-traumatic growth. Drawing on research from Emotion Focused Therapy and the Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” from my Bringing Baby Home training for couples has helped me deepen my connection with my partner and empower abuse survivors and their partners.
Trauma dysregulates our nervous system. Babette Rothchild, an integrative trauma therapist, explains, “The first goal of any trauma therapy must be helping the client to contain and reduce hyperarousal.” She uses the metaphor of “putting on the breaks.” Practicing my safe place—a simple visualization and self-soothing exercise from the preparation phase of EMDR therapy—and engaging in daily mindfulness and self-compassion allowed me to reset my delicate nervous system and restore a sense of safety in my body. Self-compassion, a powerful antidote for shame, activates our tend and befriend system. Sitting in stillness, participating in a yoga class, or attempting to be kind to yourself can be highly triggering if you’ve spent your life trying to avoid your body and the emotional and physical pain it carries. Caution must be exercised to ensure people stay within their window of tolerance. Working with a professional and honoring your limits is important.
Reflective writing is another powerful tool for gaining awareness of our triggers and needs, as well as identifying thinking traps that Cognitive Behavioral Therapists caution can further distort reality. Consciousness-raising questions I use are: “What is this about for me?” “When have I felt this way before?” “What else might be going on for me?” Listing differences between our partner and perpetrators also helps to discern past from present. Actively working to create what the Gottmans describe as a “culture of appreciation”—looking for and reflecting back what we appreciate about our partners—helps to create powerful positive associations in the brain to counter the distorted perceptions.
In Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson writes, “We need our partner to be a safe haven and also a true witness to our pain, to assure us we are not to blame for what happened and we are not weak for being helpless and overwhelmed.” In my work with female abuse survivors, I have often brought male partners into a session to help them better understand the neurobiology of trauma and why their partner is reacting the way she is. This helps reduce defensiveness and shame and shifts criticism into compassion, thereby deepening connection. When survivors are empowered to identify what they need to feel safe and how their partners can support them when they are triggered, a reparative experience can be created. The Gottmans have created a new training program to support clinicians in working with couples who have experienced affairs or other traumas.
I knew I needed to invite my husband to be a loving witness to what I was experiencing. When I turned towards him and embarked on this hard but crucial conversation, it helped bring us closer together as Dr. Brené Brown has found in her research on vulnerability. I discovered some of my defensiveness was coming from “either/or” dichotomous thinking traps and what we needed to do to find our way back to the truth was to focus on our shared values, see how our differences complement one another and reflect back what we appreciate about each other. Carving out time in the morning to talk and changing the environment from the bedroom to the living room helped keep me grounded in the present and less defensive. As my nervous system calmed and connection was restored with these daily conversations and time away for just the two of us, it was easier to relate to one another with compassion and curiosity, no longer personalizing when either of us became defensive. I was able to explain why being an ally was so important to me. He was able to listen to understand and together we spoke to our children about consent and issues of gender and racial inequality.
Certain positions and the quiet still served as triggers. Engaging in affirmative consent, as well as listening to music during physical intimacy, helped me achieve dual awareness—my mind would start thinking about a client’s trauma but I was present and able to ground myself in my body by focusing on pleasurable sensations or noting silently the differences between the current situation and the stories I had heard. By engaging in my own therapy and holistic healing and advocating for a more balanced caseload, the distressing thoughts and images and the physical triggers have lessened significantly as our relationship has strengthened.
“As we resolve our traumas we discover missing parts of our being; those that make us feel whole and complete.”- Peter Levine.
All of us are worthy of healing and setting healthy boundaries. We can break the silence and reduce the shame. We can harness the power of our creativity, our spirituality, and use attachment and body-based approaches to free ourselves from trauma and vicarious trauma and regain our right to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship.
Research shows that the secret to a satisfying sex life is making emotional and physical intimacy a priority. If you love a female survivor or a woman whose work is impacted by sexual violence, I invite you to actively work on the emotional connection first. M.L. Mortimer outlines “Do’s and Don’ts” for men who want to support and be advocates for survivors of sexual violence.
I believe becoming a better ally involves:
- Validating the heightened sense of danger women, with or without a trauma history, feel.
- Challenging other men’s disrespectful or abusive treatment.
- Acknowledging your privilege and advocating on behalf of women for equality.
- Learning and modeling what it means to be an emotionally intelligent man.
These action steps will make it easier for your partner to feel safe to turn towards you. Patience, gentleness, curiosity, vulnerability and courage are essential if couple relationships are to thrive in this #Metoo era.